“To me it is the melancholic beauty, abandon, and loneliness of Sofia’s backyards, with the narrow, often dilapidated balconies hanging above. And the trees, the lindens above all. In early summer there are whole streets lined with them, and the smell of linden blossom can make your head spin. Then, there is also Mount Vitosha, with parts of the city creeping up its slopes. Of course, a mountain can hardly go unnoticed, but I remember that as a child I used to believe that every city had a mountain, so natural it seemed to have one so close.”
— Bulgarian writer Elena Alexieva, when asked to name an extraordinary detail about Sofia
In the summer of 2016, when I was living in Germany, I finally read Rana Dasgupta’s acclaimed novel Solo. The book is set in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and recounts the life of Ulrich, a 100-year-old Bulgarian man. Dasgupta’s vivid prose brings to life the myriad events and upheavals that Sofia endures over the course of Ulrich’s life spanning the 20th century, and reading it intensified my own journey through the city.
As if by some delightful coincidence, RyanAir began offering round-trip tickets between Cologne and Sofia for a measly 20 Euros in September—so off I went.
A (Very Brief) History of Modern Bulgaria: In 1908, following nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule, Bulgaria declared independence. The Balkan Wars were waged in 1912 and 1913, and subsequent events in the region set the scene for the First World War.
Although neutral at the onset of the war, the Kingdom of Bulgaria aligned itself with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in October 1915 to fulfill its territorial aspirations. At the time, Bulgaria offered a strategic geographic position and powerful army that both the Allies and the Central Powers vied for. While the former dawdled in their attempts to enlist the country on their side, the latter succeeded by promising the restoration of territory that Bulgaria had lost in the Second Balkan War.
Following the Central Powers’ defeat, the Treaty of Neuilly ensured that Bulgaria was stripped of significant portions of its territory, disarmed, and ordered to pay heavy reparations. The turmoil-ridden interwar period in the nation saw relentless tensions between the authoritarian government, revolutionary groups, the Military League, Bulgarian communists and Agrarians.
At the start of World War II, Bulgaria proclaimed neutrality. However, Tsar Boris III ultimately established a passive alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, despite a sizeable resistance movement within the country. Yet again territorial gains played a role. By 1944, Bulgaria found itself in a precarious position in the face of a looming German collapse. In September of that year, the Soviet Union invaded German-occupied Bulgaria—welcomed by the weary Bulgarian populace—and paved the way for the installation of a communist regime that would last from 1946 until 1990.
Bulgaria underwent rapid industrialization during the communist period, which was marked by a sharp rise in censorship and the (often brutal) suppression of dissent.
Built during the 1950s, the Largo in downtown Sofia is considered to be a prime architectural example of Socialist Classicism or Stalinist architecture, popularized under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Although communist symbols on the buildings have since been dismantled, the complex continues to serve as a reminder of a different time.
Today, the Statue of Saint Sofia, erected in the year 2000, stands tall in the centre of the city—replacing the Lenin statue that had once occupied the same spot.
The “Old-Meets-New Allure” of Contemporary Sofia
“First came the Thracians, about 2,700 years ago, followed by the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Turks and then the Communists. These days — more than two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and five years after joining the European Union — the Bulgarian capital is finally coming into its own. In place of the old Lenin monument, a statue of Sofia’s patron saint now stands tall — a dark princess that somehow embodies the city’s East-meets-West, old-meets-new allure.” — 36 Hours in Sofia, Bulgaria, The New York Times (2012)
Present-day Sofia is hip, vibrant and colourful. And while Bulgaria continues to rank poorly in a number of categories (monthly wage, freedom of press, corruption etc.) in comparison with its EU neighbours, it has nevertheless undergone a significant transformation from its predominantly agrarian past.
A curious (but welcome) amenity that I came across were the public hot water taps: Sofia is rich in mineral springs, and locals flock to these taps to partake of some pure spring water at no extra cost. Who wouldn’t care for a hot drink on a chilly autumn night?
“Ulrich has sometimes wondered whether his life has been a failure. Once he would have looked at all this and said yes. But now he does not know what it means for a life to succeed or fail. How can a dog fail its life, or a tree? A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth, or a bucket of water.”
— Rana Dasgupta, Solo
Sofia is home to a number of museums, as well as a flourishing art and design scene. Performing arts, particularly theatre, and the cinema are popular pastimes.
Bulgarian cuisine is diverse—it has much in common with the cuisines of neighbouring regions, namely Greek, Russian, Middle Eastern and Italian. My penchant for adventure doesn’t seem to extend very much to food, however, so this creature of habit stuck to the food she knows and loves, feasting on some good old shakshouka on my first evening in the city.
But seriously, how can something so simple (it’s literally tomatoes and eggs) taste so good?
“Bulgaria has many secrets, many layers. To understand Bulgaria, you must live here a long time, be intimate with people, live like a Bulgarian, and speak our language. Even then I don’t know how close you can be to real truth. All you see is what is left of us.” — Annie Ward, The Making of June.
During World War II, Bulgaria witnessed widespread protests and public uproar against the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. Ultimately, Tsar Boris III refused to comply with German requests, and not a single one of the 48,000 Jews living in Bulgaria proper were deported or killed by the Nazis—a continued source of pride among many Bulgarians. Tragically, however, the lives of 11,343 Jews living in Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia—territories that were under Bulgarian control at the time—were not spared.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals, is a recognizable symbol of Sofia and a major tourist attraction. Completed in the year 1912, it was built to honour the many lives that were lost during the struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire.
Sofia intrigued me. It’s no Berlin or Paris or Rome, but perhaps that’s precisely why this unique Balkan city is worth a visit.
The downside? Surly immigration staff at Sofia Airport—definitely not the welcome you’d hope for!